Stretcher Carriers and Sermon Critics (Luke 5:12-26)
Although Jesus’ ministry commences in Luke chapter 4 (and we are midway through chapter 5), about a year has passed since the beginning of His public preaching. Up till now, Jesus has been preaching and teaching in synagogues (Luke 4:15). At Nazareth, the town where Jesus had grown up, His teaching was initially enthusiastically received, but when the fuller implications were spelled out (namely the blessing Messiah would bring to the Gentiles, Luke 4:23-27), He was cast from the synagogue and apart from divine enablement, would have been thrust down to his death. Jesus then went to Capernaum, where He preached and underscored His message by casting out a demon (Luke 4:31-37). Healing Peter’s mother-in-law seems to have led to an all-night healing session (4:38-41), but after a time of private prayer our Lord felt compelled to press on to other places so that He could carry out His primary task of proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God (4:42-44).
If Luke chapter 4 focused on the ministry of our Lord to the masses, chapter 5 begins to focus on the ministry of our Lord with respect to the leadership of Israel. In the two healings recorded in our text (Luke 5:12-26), the Lord discloses Himself to the priests (5:14) and to the teachers of the law (5:17, 21, etc.). In the case of the priests, we do not know of their response to the report of the healed leper, indeed, we do not even know for certain that the leper ever went to the priest (he did not obey the Lord about keeping quiet, you will recall). We do know that the teachers of the law reacted strongly to what they heard from our Lord. The beginning of the opposition of the leaders of the nation can be found here in Luke’s gospel. Simultaneously, the commencement of the training of the 12 can be found. As the leaders of Israel draw back from our Lord, He calls men to follow Him, who will later be appointed as His apostles, and the eventual leaders of the church which is to be born after His death, resurrection, and ascension.
Not only do we find the opposition to Jesus on the part of Israel’s leaders beginning here, but we also see some of the reasons for their opposition. Let us look carefully at the two healings which are Lord performs in our text, to see what lessons were to be learned by the nation, and to learn the lessons which God has for us here as well.The Structure of the Text99
The text can be divided into two major sections, each describing the a healing performed by our Lord, and a response to that healing:
(1) Verses 12-16—The Healing of the Leper and its Consequences
(2) Verses 17-26—The Healing of the Paralytic and its Consequences
The Healing of the Leper
In a certain Galilean city100 our Lord came upon a leper. Luke, the doctor, tells us that this was no ordinary leper, but rather a man “full of leprosy” (5:12). While the term leprosy may have been employed for a number of different ailments, Luke wants us to know that this man was a hard case. We sometimes hear of people who have had exploratory surgery, who are found to be “full of cancer.” It is indeed a serious condition.
The man prostrated himself before the Lord Jesus and implored Him to heal him. His petition shows a great deal of insight into the person of our Lord: “Lord, if you are willing, You can make me clean” (Luke 5:12).
The leper did not doubt the Lord’s ability to heal; the only issue was whether or not is was His will to do so. Many people who wish to be healed today could learn from this leper. The critical issue was not the leper’s faith (“Lord, if I am willing … ”), nor the Lord’s power (“Lord, if You are able … ”), but the Lord’s sovereign will. How comforting it is to appeal to a merciful and compassionate God!
Reaching out and touching the man, the Lord replied, “I am willing; be cleansed” (Luke 5:13).
It is noteworthy that Jesus here, as elsewhere, touches the leper, when He never seems to have touched a demonized person. Pressing this point even further, it would seem that the text suggests that Jesus touched the leper before He pronounced him clean. The Lord is doing several significant things here. (1) He is touching a leper before he is cleansed, showing the He is not able to be defiled by this uncleanness. (2) He is instantly producing physical healing of a very serious disorder. (3) He is not only healing the man, but He is pronouncing him to be cleansed. Jesus did not command the man only to be healed, or to be whole, but He pronounced him to be cleansed. It would seem that our Lord has therefore done that which an Old Testament priest could only do after a test period, to be sure that the man was indeed free of the disease. When Jesus makes a man clean, there need not be a test period. The man is thus to go and offer his sacrifice, and to be a witness to the priests, but apparently not to be pronounced clean (or at least this would only be a formality, a seconding of what our Lord had already done).
The Lord gives a very stern warning to the man, something which Mark’s gospel makes even more emphatic (“He sternly warned him,” Mark 1:43), instructing him not to make his healing public. This would almost seem to be a greater miracle than his healing. I lost a few pounds and it would seem that everybody noticed (some thought I was too thin!). Can you imagine being completely healed of leprosy and not having to answer an endless stream of questions. It is hard to fault the man for telling of his healing.
The second part of Jesus’ command to the former leper was to go to the priest, as the law (Leviticus 13 & 14) instructed. The primary reason seems to be for a witness to the priests. Note the plural “priests” here, rather than just the singular. He was to go to the “priest” (singular) as a witness to the “priests” (plural). I doubt that there was a long line of people waiting for a priest to pronounce them cleansed of leprosy. In fact, I would almost imagine that the priest may have excused himself, consulted with other priests, and then finally consulted the law itself, to learn how he should handle this cleansed leper. How unusual this cleansing would have been. How great a testimony it would have been to the priests. How quickly word would have spread among the priests. This was another way of serving notice to the priests that the Messiah had arrived.
Word did get out, thanks to the leper101 and perhaps to others who might have witnesses his healing. Luke alone informs us that Jesus frequently retreated to the wilderness (the place where He was tempted?) for the purpose of prayer: “But He Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:16).
Why did our Lord need to pray, and for what might He have prayed? First, I believe that our Lord desperately yearned for fellowship with the Father. At this early point, not to mention later, no one really fathomed the purpose of our Lord’s coming. People flocked to Jesus, but with only a partial and distorted grasp of what He was coming to do. Only the Father understood. Prayer was a time of fellowship and communion between Father and Son. The miracles and the misunderstanding of the people only intensified our Lord’s yearning to be alone with the Father.
Furthermore, the greater our Lord’s earthly success, the greater the temptation might be to forsake the way of the cross and to pursue an easier route to reigning upon the earth. Our Lord’s retreat for prayer was an expression of His dependence upon the Father. It put His successes in perspective, for He did everything in obedience to the Father’s will and in the power of His Spirit (cf. Luke 4:14). These times with the Father kept our Lord’s perspective and priorities in line with those of the Father.
These are days when all too many popular preachers and evangelical figures are falling. Many of them, I fear, have failed to follow the example of our Lord of retreating to solitude and prayer in times of great success and public acclaim. It is in our earthly successes that we are inclined to feel smugly self-sufficient and successful, forgetting that it is only in our weakness and His strength that God’s sufficiency is shown.
The Pharisees and the Paralytic
Jesus had returned to Capernaum, and word had already gotten out that He was back at His headquarters (Matt. 9:1-2; Mark 2:1-2). News of Jesus’ return precipitated two very different responses. The first response was that of a number102 of people who may have lived in or near Capernaum, who knew that Jesus was able to heal the sick. They had a friend who was paralyzed, whom they wanted to bring to Jesus for healing. It seems to have taken some time to get the man from where he was staying to the house where Jesus was teaching. By the time they arrived, the house was filled. And there was apparently a large crowd gathered outside. Mark (Mark 2:2) informs us that there was not even room outside the door.
The scene, which Matthew totally passes by without comment, must have been almost comical. It is difficult to conceive of our Lord not being aware of the entire event. The house is crowded and Jesus is teaching. At the same time, Luke notes that Jesus was endued with power to perform a healing.103 If this house had windows, there would have been people filling them. Perhaps the Lord could see the commotion going on outside, caused by the four who were determined to get the paralytic to Jesus. The may have tried one window and then another, all around the house. (The door, as Mark has informed us, was impossible.)
Undaunted by the difficulties, these men decided to try “from the top down.” They took the paralytic, let’s call him “Fred,” to the roof. There may have been stairs, of course, but may have come only from inside the house. Can you imagine poor old “Fred,” placed not on one of those carefully designed and constructed ambulance-type stretchers, but rather on a kind of makeshift pallet. Hands may have slipped in the process of getting “Fred” to the roof, and poor Fred may have several times dangled precariously on his pallet, threatening to fall to the earth too far below. For all we know, Fred might have panicked and pled to be taken home, where life was safer. Once on the roof, one can imagine the difficulty of four men carrying a stretcher over hot tiles. Lowering Fred down through the roof must have provided another spine-tingling ride, making the scariest rides at Six Flags look easy.
The scene, as viewed from below, must have been just as amusing. The house was filled with people, we are told. Luke alone tells us who many, perhaps most, of these people were. They were the “Pharisees and teachers of the law.” Jesus had become a major threat to the teachers of the law, as a couple texts of Scripture will demonstrate:
And they were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22 ).
And they were all amazed, so that they debated among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him” (Mark 1:27).
Jesus’ teaching was immediately recognized as newer than, different from, and better than that of the scribes and Pharisees. It would not have taken these teachers of the law long to recognize that the popularity of Jesus spelled trouble for them. No doubt the word circulated quickly among the teachers of Israel and this gathering at Capernaum was at least one of the summit conferences they called to decide what to do about the teaching of Jesus.
Luke informs us that it was no small gathering of teachers, but a representation of all the teachers in Israel:
And it came about one day that He was teaching; and there were some Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem … (Luke 5:17a).
The teachers of the law had gathered to hear Jesus, to pass judgment on Him, and then, undoubtedly, to decide what course of action to take concerning the threat which He posed to them.
Such a group of teachers would have been a large delegation. They, in my opinion, would have constituted most of those inside the house. Luke includes a detail that I consider significant. He informs us that these teachers were sitting in the room (Luke 5:17). If you were going to get the maximum number of people in that house, how would you position them? Would you have them sit or stand? Of course, you would have them stand. Then why were the Pharisees and teachers of the law “sitting” when more people could have been able to come in the house if all stood? My answer is this. The sitting position was the position of authority for the teacher. A teacher in those days did not stand to teach, he sat to teach (cf. Luke 4:20-21). These teachers would not have stood, for that would have been to concede Jesus’ authority as a teacher, the very thing they were inclined to challenge. It is this large group of hostile hearers who take up all the room inside this house, and who keep the paralytic from being brought before Jesus.
What a humorous sight it must have been to watch these prim and proper (and very proud) teachers as the roof was being removed. It would have been a very dirty business. It could have been dangerous as well. If there were tiles (which it seems to me there were), a tile might occasionally have been dropped. Can’t you just see the teachers below, scrambling out of the way of a falling tile? Mark’s account tells us that they dug through the roof (Mark 2:4) the roof, implying that there was some dirt or something like it. All of this “stuff” (crud) came tumbling down on those seated so proudly and properly below. Can’t you see them angrily demanding the men above to stop, dusting themselves off in disgust?
Once the man was finally lowered so that he was in front of the Lord, things really began to happen. Notice that nowhere is it said that the four men or the paralytic made a specific request of our Lord. Either our Lord acted before the request was made or the men felt that Jesus would not need to be asked specifically, once He saw the man’s need. All three gospels report virtually the same response on the part of our Lord: “And seeing their faith, He said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you’” (Luke 5:20).
This was, I think, a distressing response to all who those who were involved in this incident: the victim (Fred), the four stretcher-bearers, and the Pharisees and teachers of the law.
Poor Fred must have been distressed at the words of Jesus. He had not come primarily to be forgiven, but to be healed. He had risked all of the perils of his journey, and especially those related to his being lowered from the roof. Being told that his sins were forgiven must have seemed like a “rip off” to Fred, who had come to be healed. After all, isn’t this what his four friends had assured him would happen? And the four men must have had a similar response. They had brought Fred a considerable distance and fought their way through the crowds. They had gone to the trouble of getting Fred down through the roof. The owner of the house would probably be sending them a bill for the repairs to the roof. They had not asked for a healing, but surely the Lord could have performed it. They, like Fred, must have felt “let down” (pardon the pun).
The Pharisees and teachers of the law were indignant. They seemed to care little whether or not Fred was healed, but they were angered by Jesus having the audacity to pronounce a man’s (any man’s) sins forgiven. Forgiveness of sins is something which only God can do, they reasoned, and rightly so. Thus, to tell a man his sins were forgiven was also to claim to be God. “Just who does this fellow think he is?” The question of authority raises its ugly head, for this is the bone of contention between these teachers and Jesus. Jesus, so the crowds thought, taught with authority, and not like them. Now Jesus Himself is claiming God’s authority. They are indeed overflowing with “righteous” indignation.
The response of Jesus raises all kinds of questions. In the first place, it raises the question, “How could Jesus offer the man forgiveness of sins when what he really wanted was physical wholeness?” The answer to this is simple, I believe. Jesus, by His actions, was teaching that the forgiveness of sins is more important, more valuable, than mere physical healing. If one had to choose between one or the other, forgiveness of sins is of much greater value than physical recovery.
Second, the question arises, “How can Jesus forgive this man’s sins, based on the faith of the four?” Isn’t the forgiveness of sins based upon individual repentance and faith? The answer is to be found in the ultimate source and basis for forgiveness, the character and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. We love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). We have faith in Him because He first opens our hearts (Acts 16:14). Faith itself is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-10). Thus, God’s grace is not prompted or initiated by man’s actions, it is prompted by God’s compassion and grace. It is mediated by Christ’s atoning work on the cross. God’s good gifts are the result of God’s goodness, not man’s meritorious acts, to which God responds and reciprocates. Our text shows that God’s blessings do come by faith, and that in this case the faith which is in focus is that of the four men, not that of the man on the stretcher.
Third, the Pharisees demand to know, “How can Jesus dare to forgive a man’s sins when only God can do so?” The answer to this question is, by far, the most simple: Jesus can forgive a man’s sins because He is God. Logic had carried the Pharisees and teacher of the law to the deity of Christ as surely as the four had carried the paralytic to Jesus. But they would have none of what logic demanded.
Jesus had all along intended to heal the paralytic, but this healing was to be a teaching tool, not just a miracle. “Fred’s” desire was about to be fulfilled, but now his healing would prove that our Lord did have the power to forgive sins. Our Lord asked a simple question, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins have been forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” (Luke 5:23).
It is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” than it is to say, “Rise up and walk.” The reason is because there is no visible proof that sins have been forgiven. One can make such a statement without having to prove he has done it. But to command a paralyzed man to walk is something very difficult. They proof of your power is very visible, or the evidence of its absence. To command a paralyzed man to walk requires him to do so. Thus, Jesus has set up this circumstance to show that He has both the power to forgive sins and to make the paralyzed to walk. Our Lord’s miracle here will prove His power in two areas, not just one. He is “killing two birds with one stone,” so to speak.
With this, our Lord commanded “Fred” to get up, to pick up his pallet, and to go home. Fred did so immediately. Imagine it. The pallet which had seconds before carried Fred from home, Fred now carried home under his arm. What a delightful burden this must have been. I wonder if it made it all the way home, or whether Fred dumped it in the trash can outside the house.
Fred left the house, glorifying God, and so did all the rest, all the rest with the exception of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. They are still stewing about the “blasphemy” uttered by our Lord. I would take it that the crowd which praised God was largely that group which waited and watched from outside. They may well not have heard our Lord’s pronouncement of forgiveness of “Fred’s” sins. They would have watched Fred friends attempt to get him into the house, then onto the house, and then through the roof to Jesus. They would then have seen Fred emerge from the house some time later, with his pallet under his arm. How they must have rejoiced.
We are not told how the Pharisees and teachers of the law responded. No doubt they were sullen and silent. No doubt, too, they met soon to discuss how they would handle Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles. But that is something which Luke delays for later in his account.
Lessons From the Paralytic
There are numerous lessons to be learned from our text. I will underscore just a few. First, our text serves to contrast the faith of the stretcher-carriers with the unbelief of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The stretcher-carriers believed in Jesus, the Pharisees and teachers were skeptical. The stretcher-carriers were persistent in their efforts to reach Jesus. The Pharisees and teachers were resistant, increasingly drawing back from Jesus. The stretcher-carriers overcame various obstacles to get to Jesus; the Pharisees and teachers were obstacles, keeping others from Jesus. The stretcher-carriers wanted others to benefit from the blessings which Jesus bestowed on men; the Pharisees and teachers rejected His blessings and cared little about others benefiting from Jesus. If you stop to think of it, not once in any of the gospels do you find a teacher or a Pharisee bringing anyone to Jesus for mercy and grace. You often find them opposing and resisting people who wish to draw near to Him. At best, you find the Pharisees and teachers passively tolerant. The Pharisees and teachers had to reject their own logic and theology to reject Jesus as the Son of God, which their hardened hearts compelled them to do. They saw themselves as righteous and suspected Jesus to be a sinner. After all, He associated with them.
The bottom line is simply this: Are you a stretcher-carrier or a sermon critic? Stretcher-carriers are those who recognize Jesus’ power and authority and who seek to share Him with others, often at great personal effort and sacrifice. Sermon-critics are those who may listen to the teaching of the Bible, but with minds already made up, just waiting for some pretext for their unbelief and rejection.
Even born again Christian are inclined to become sermon critics, rather than stretcher-carriers. They come to hear a preacher, only to see if he conforms to their preconceived doctrines and ideas. They want only to discover if he agrees with them. They do not want their prejudices exposed and challenged. They do not want to be under the authority of God’s Word. And they spend so much time criticizing that they have no time to bring others to the blessings which God has for those who will receive them.
May God grant that you and I become stretcher-carriers, and not mere sermon critics.104
99 Parallel texts to that in Luke can be found in Matthew 8:2-4; 9:1-8 and Mark 1:40—2:12. Each text has a unique emphasis. In Matthew’s record of the healing of the leper we are given a very generic and concise report. Mark’s account of the healing of the leper is longer, emphasizing: (1) Jesus’ compassion, v. 41; (2) Jesus’ strong warning not to tell others, v. 43-44; (3) the leper’s testimony creating such popularity that it virtually forced Jesus to stay in remote places, yet prayer is not mentioned), v, 45. Luke emphasizes: (1) the seriousness of the illness (full of leprosy), v. 12; (2) the crowds which came for healing and hearing, v. 15; (3) Jesus’ withdrawal for prayer, v. 16.
All the accounts emphasize: (1) Humble petition: “If You are willing … ” (2) Jesus touched the man
Jesus’ willingness to heal: “I am willing … ” (3) An immediate cure; (4) Warning not to tell others, but commanded to go to the priest.
In the story of paralytic, Matthew once again gives a very generic and general account, not even telling us of the lowering of the man through the roof. Matthew does tell us that Jesus came by boat to “His own city,” Matt. 9:1, so that we know the miracle occurred at Capernaum (cf. also Mark 2:1, “home”). Mark adds the detail that the crowd in and about the house was so large that there was no room left, even outside the door (2:2). Luke provides us with the very significant fact that many of those in the house were teachers of the law, assembled from all over Israel (5:17). He also informs us that the “power of the Lord was present” at that time for Jesus to heal the sick (5:17).
101 We would not know for certain that the news of this man’s healing came from his own mouth from the accounts of Matthew and Luke. Mark, however, clearly indicates that the man spread the news of his healing abroad (Mark 1:45). The same text also informs us that the report made Jesus so popular that He had to virtually “hide out” in the wilderness. Mark does not mention that our Lord’s seclusion in the wilderness was for the purpose of prayer, but Luke clearly says so (Luke 5:16).
102 Initially, I was inclined to think that only four people were involved in getting the paralytic to Jesus. However, the rendering of the Mark’s Gospel in the NIV at least suggests that more may have been involved: Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them” (Mark 2:3). It is not unlikely that a larger delegation was involved in getting this man to Jesus. Only four would have been needed to carry his pallet, however.
103 Luke’s purpose in making the statement about our Lord’s healing power in verse 17 seems to be two-fold: (1) To indicate that the only reason why the paralytic would not be healed was due to our Lord’s inaccessibility. Our Lord was, at this time, fully able to heal. (2) To indicate that our Lord’s healing power was not continuous, but intermittent, based upon the divine enablement of the Spirit. There would be no need to say that Jesus then had the power to heal unless there were times that He did not possess this power. This assumes that Jesus had temporarily set aside the use of His divine power as the Son and was dependent upon the Spirit’s power, during the time of His humiliation and incarnation.
104 I want to be very clear that I am not trying to stifle criticism of my own preaching—it needs criticism. In fact, I meet weekly with a group of men who do criticize my thinking and preaching, and I greatly appreciate it. I am more stimulated and encouraged by a good criticism than by a compliment. But what I am referring to here is the attitude of belligerence, which does not want to be challenged or corrected or informed, but only to be agreed with.